(SportsNetwork.com) - Boy, that escalated quickly.
Title dreams for the heavily favored Oklahoma City Thunder took a nosedive upon learning that superstar and reigning NBA MVP Kevin Durant will miss about six to eight weeks with a Jones Fracture in his right foot.
The sharp-shooting and electrifying Durant informed the team of discomfort in his foot Saturday, when championship dreams started to circle the drain. This isn't the first time the Thunder had to deal with an injury to a star player, as point guard Russell Westbrook is quite familiar with all of it.
Now that Durant will be shelved for a significant amount of time, a healthy Westbrook is expected to shoulder the load.
"You can't replace Kevin," OKC head coach Scott Brooks said. "He's one of the best players on the planet, but what you can do, is make sure that when he does come back, our team is better."
Oklahoma City is still one of the top teams in the league and Westbrook said it's all about rallying around each other for the start of the 2014-15 season.
"It's just sticking together," Westbrook said. "It's key that all of us stick together. We have a lot of guys banged up right now, but we have to find a way to stick together, continue to move forward and get wins."
Now that Durant's gone for some time, instead of being a candidate for a top seed, the Thunder could finish somewhere between the fourth and sixth seed in the jumbled Western Conference. But as this time of year approaches, the Thunder gather much attention as the favorite to reach the apex of NBA greatness. Losing arguably the best player in the league in Durant (no offense LeBron James) kind of throws a wrench in the gears.
The franchise hasn't won an NBA title since the 1978-79 Seattle SuperSonics were crowned king, and the Thunder are coming off a fourth straight Northwest Division title. Led by NBA leading scorer Durant, who averaged 32.0 points per game, the Thunder stormed out to a 38-10 record by the end of January and qualified for the postseason for a fifth straight season.
Oklahoma City had the second-best record in the NBA (59-23) and played 36 games without starting point guard Westbrook. Westbrook averaged 21.8 points, 6.9 assists and 5,7 rebounds and, during his absence, the greatness of Durant appeared. Durant led the NBA in scoring for a fourth time in the last five seasons and is one of just five players in NBA history to win four or more scoring titles, joining Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, George Gervin and Allen Iverson.
Durant raised eyebrows when he surpassed Jordan's record by scoring 25 or more points in 41 straight games. He helped the Thunder win a season-high 10 straight games from Jan. 16-31 and later averaged 34.5 ppg in March, earning him Player of the Month honors.
Durant has led the Thunder to the threshold of NBA immortality in recent years with trips to the Western Conference Finals three times over the past four seasons. However, the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs dispatched the Thunder in six games in the conference finals last postseason.
Oklahoma City has qualified for the playoffs in each of the last five seasons and has won 50 or more games in four of those.
But can the Thunder finally get over the hump in 2014-15 with Durant on the bench for the start of the season? The defending champion Spurs are a year older, James is now with a loaded Cleveland squad, leaving Miami seemingly vulnerable, and Indiana probably won't have Paul George for the entire season. Yes, there's a chance and OKC's odds are still better than Lloyd Christmas hooking up with Mary Swanson.
The Thunder are always dominant at home and went 34-7 at Chesapeake Energy Arena last season as opposed to a respectable 25-16 record on the road.
Winning another Northwest Division shouldn't be a problem with the current situation, especially now that All-Star forward Kevin Love is out of the question. The former Minnesota Timberwolves superstar joined forces with James in Cleveland, and now Portland is the only threat to OKC. Denver could compete and Utah is still building.
2013-14 Results: 59-23, 1st in Northwest, lost in Western Conference Finals to San Antonio
ADDITIONS: G/F Anthony Morrow, G Sebastian Telfair, F Mitch McGary
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
PG- Russell Westbrook SG- Anthony Morrow SF- Perry Jones PF- Serge Ibaka C - Kendrick Perkins
KEY RESERVES: G Reggie Jackson, F Nick Collison, G Jeremy Lamb, C Steven Adams, F Perry Jones, C Mitch McGary, G Andre Roberson
FRONTCOURT: Durant left the U.S. national team in August before the FIBA World Cup, citing physical and mental exhaustion from the season. The strategy worked out at the time and now he's just a spectator.
Durant was the main reason why the Thunder were fourth in scoring in 2013-14 with 106.2 points per game. Those numbers will surely dip and Oklahoma City could see a revolving door at the forward spot. Perry Jones seems like a solid choice to begin the season on the court at tip-off and posted 3.5 points and 1.8 rebounds in limited action last season.
Jones played in 62 games and averaged just over 12 minutes a game. He has size at 6-foot-11 and a lengthy wingspan. It's just too bad for the Thunder they won't get much production from that spot in the first few months. Jeremy Lamb is another possibility for Brooks and he notched 8.5 points and 2.4 rebounds a season ago. Lamb appeared in 78 games, playing about 19 minutes a night.
Serge Ibaka put a damper on Oklahoma City's title hopes with a calf injury during the playoffs and it took away the team's inside presence. Ibaka instills fear down low with his ability to clog the paint and block shots. He has the size of an NFL linebacker and his defensive prowess makes it difficult for opponents in the lane. It's better to kick it out when the 6-foot-10 Ibaka is waiting to make a play. He averaged 15.1 points and led the Thunder with 8.8 rebounds and 2.7 blocks in 2013-14. Ibaka also had 29 double-doubles, up from his 2012-13 total of 15.
If Ibaka has any flaws it's his ability to play more than 30 minutes a night.
This could be the end of the road for Kendrick Perkins with center Steven Adams waiting to take over. Perkins still has brute strength and that evil scowl. That being said, averaging 3.4 points and 4.9 rebounds from the center position isn't going to get you far.
Perkins is fortunate to play in the shadows of Durant and Westbrook, so it's not too important to run the offense inside. Still, it has to be done and Perkins is coming off one of his worst seasons. Perkins has no choice but to improve after the Thunder failed in a bid to land big man Pau Gasol.
BACKCOURT: With guard Anthony Morrow in the fold, the Thunder will probably use Reggie Jackson off the bench again. Morrow joined Oklahoma City in July and was picked up as a free agent. Morrow is a smooth scorer with natural shooting ability and should pair up well with stars Durant and Westbrook.
Morrow averaged 8.4 points in a career-high 76 games last season for New Orleans, and is known for his 3-point shooting. He shot 45.1 percent from beyond the arc last season and has hit 40 percent or better four times.
"With his body of work, we feel Anthony is a unique addition to a diverse roster, while also possessing the toughness and selflessness that we are consistently seeking in Thunder players," said OKC general manager Sam Presti.
Westbrook displays toughness and selflessness (at times) for the Thunder and is one of the best point guards in the game. Quick off the dribble and faster than a hiccup, Westbrook was able to stay healthy this past postseason unlike the 2012-13 playoffs when he suffered a knee injury.
Westbrook knows what Durant's going through being sidelined.
"It's very, very unfortunate," Westbrook said. "If anybody knows what it feels like, I would know. I talked to Kevin. He's in good spirits. He's going to get back as soon as he can to help us out."
The All-Star played 46 games and shot 43.7 percent. Westbrook is working on a better shot selection instead of wildly trying to handle situations on his own. If and when that happens, the Thunder will be even deadlier.
The Thunder don't have defensive-minded swingman Thabo Sefolosha, who is now with the Atlanta Hawks. Atlanta acquired him in a sign-and-trade. Sefolosha spent the past five-plus seasons with the Thunder and played a key part in a march to the 2012 NBA Finals. He averaged 6.3 points and 3.6 rebounds while starting 61 games for the Thunder last season.
BENCH: Jackson shined in the starting lineup when Westbrook was recovering from knee surgery and gives Brooks a nice piece coming off the bench. Jackson started 36 games in 2013-14 and averaged 14.1 points and 5.1 assists. He led OKC at the line, making 89.3 percent of his foul shots. In 44 games as a sub, he notched 12.3 points and 4.1 rebounds.
Jackson, who averaged 11.1 ppg in the postseason, has tremendous potential to become a full-time starter down the stretch even though he lacks size at the position. It wouldn't be a surprise, though, if Brooks puts the sixth man back in the starting lineup at some point.
Before Jackson entered the starting lineup, the OKC bench averaged 34.6 ppg in the first 28 games of the season. That shows how important a reserve he is. The Thunder went 15-0 when Jackson scored 15 points or more off the pine.
Derek Fisher and Caron Butler are gone and considered dinosaurs at this point. Fisher, of course, is now the head coach of the New York Knicks and his leadership and experience will be missed. Guard Andre Roberson has a shot at seeing more action, while Nick Collison, Mitch McGary and Adams will spell the big men. Guard Sebastian Telfair is looking for a new beginning with the Thunder.
COACHING: Since Brooks took over as Thunder head coach in 2008, they are 293-170 with a 39-34 record in the postseason. Those playoff numbers have to improve if Brooks wants to stick around much longer. And it doesn't get any easier with Durant out. Perhaps that could save Brooks' job if the Thunder fail to live up to expectations.
Brooks has managed to work with what he has and that's not saying much when Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka are at his disposal. He will try to make it work with Morrow now in the fold and Jackson coming off the bench again. It's a good problem to have for Brooks, who has shown the capability to adjust in crunch time. The Thunder and their fans have lofty expectations and Brooks will be feeling the pressure if a winner is not delivered.
Defense will always be key to how the Thunder maintain their elevated scoring average. Working their way into transition to create easy baskets and opportunities will, and always, be predicated on defense. When the defense presents chances to score, passing is most important.
"We've been working on it over the last few years of really involving the pass more and more," Brooks said. "Our guys have really picked it up. Going into the summer, those are the areas we wanted to focus on offensively, to give ourselves a better shot every time down court."
Brooks said having a large number of returning players back helps in understanding the philosophy leading up to the regular season.
OUTLOOK: It was title or bust for this agonizing Thunder fanbase in 2014-15, and now it's just try to stay afloat without one of the NBA's best players. Injuries are the demise of any sports team and now the Thunder must prove they're a resilient group. Brooks said he is proud of his players because they don't make excuses and figure out ways to improve when faced with adversity.
Now is the time to see if the Thunder are ready to move forward as a team.